Picture this scenario: Your company needs to have an emergency meeting of the board of directors, and you’ve been given the distinct honor of figuring out how to connect twenty high-powered executives who are located in ten different cities and who have varying levels of available connectivity. Some members are in hotel rooms and are using 33.6 Kbps PCMCIA modems to link their notebooks to the analog data ports on the wall jacks. When you’re looking for a cheap and easy way of setting up a virtual board meeting, an online seminar, or an interactive chat between a speaker and an audience, the solution is something that has been overlooked for too long: ICQ.

What is ICQ?
ICQ is one of the most popular downloads in the world. It boasts a user base of nearly 30 million people worldwide. It’s also the instant messaging pioneer that AOL bought—leaving two Technion students with nothing better to do than tan themselves on sunny Mediterranean beaches with all the other Generation X multi-millionaires. It’s the archetype for AOL Instant Messenger, Yahoo! Instant Messenger, MS NetMeeting, MS Comic Chat, PowWow, and probably even CU-SeeMe (to some extent). ICQ is the epitome of instant messaging.

Why use ICQ?
ICQ is a multi-tasking communications tool. It’s free, easy to set up, versatile, and capable of launching multiple external programs. All of these traits make it a great option for budget shoppers and a high-powered IT solution, too. Sure, it’s a free instant-messaging program that’s used by millions. And sure, it’s a program with several major drawbacks. But it’s a powerful tool that most business people tend to forget. ICQ is so widely available and so simple that it’s often overlooked as an alternative to MS NetMeeting and bonded ISDN solutions. It’s this simplicity, however, that makes ICQ an out-of-the-box, innovative, and almost perfect quick fix.

Easy to set up
One of the major benefits of using ICQ is the ease with which you can set it up. First, there are relatively few bandwidth concerns with ICQ. It works as well on a 28.8 Kbps modem as it does with a 100 Kbps network connection. Furthermore, ICQ for the Palm Computing Platform should become available (and reliable) in the not too distant future. Second, since it’s a reasonably small program, it can be downloaded quickly. (Please note that Mirabilis, ICQ’s parent company, doesn’t want people to distribute their software—even though there are dozens of places to download it online.) And let’s not forget that it’s free; there won’t be any budget problems.

Setting up ICQ in our hypothetical situation will require making sure that everyone at each location has downloaded, installed, and registered the program. Then, you must do a little research. Figure A shows ICQ’s user client. The first thing that you’ll need to do is add all user names to your boss’s client. This step can become time-consuming, especially if the other people who are joining in haven’t installed and registered their copies yet.

Figure A
Although ICQ’s user client is cluttered, it’s easy to navigate

Once that step is finished, you’ll be able to pass on the entire contact list to all the members of the meeting at once. You can accomplish this task by left-clicking any individual name and selecting Contacts | Multiple Recipients. Then, you can use check boxes to select all of the members by their names. Click Send, and every member of the meeting will receive an entire roster of who’s who and information about the other users, including such contact information as address, phone number, e-mail address, and even a picture of the user. After sending the contact information, you’re ready to host the chat portion of the meeting with ICQ. The next step is getting everyone up to speed on this program.

Easy to train
Since the icons on the pop-up menus are easy to decipher, once you show your boss how to click on a user name (as in Figure A), he’ll probably want to try every feature. Clicking on the ICQ button and selecting Simple Features will stop this curiosity. This action reduces the pop-up menu to its most basic options. Unfortunately, it also reduces the power of the program. Advanced Features gives your boss the ability to send contacts, files, voice messages, and other valuable information to the rest of the participants in this online meeting. The most important actions that you need to teach your boss to do are the following:

  • Send a chat request (though you’ll probably end up babysitting the whole process)
  • Join a chat
  • Participate in a chat
  • Send a private message
  • Send a file

Using these features, anyone can communicate effectively within the group.

What’s that? Your boss has no more questions? Wouldn’t that be great? The chances of it happening are slim but not impossible—depending on the technical abilities of the meeting participants. Figure B shows a standard chat window. When one participant types a message, the whole group can see the comment and respond to it. The only major problem would occur if someone in the meeting didn’t read very quickly. You can overcome this problem by teaching members to save the log of the conversation so that they can refer to it later. This logging feature can be found at File | Save Buffer.

Figure B
ICQ’s chat window allows participants to view—and respond to—all messages.

Sending private messages is also easy. All you have to do is left-click on a user name and select Message from the pop-up window. Each message may be as long as 450 words (not characters) and can be formatted to your liking. Sticking to something basic usually leads to better netiquette (online etiquette). ICQ, unlike other similar programs, allows you to send messages to users who aren’t online. Thus, ICQ can function like an e-mail inbox. Once each user is comfortable with sending private messages and interacting in a chat, ICQ will become the meeting format of choice for all participants.

The power trip
How does ICQ differentiate itself from all other imposters that are out on the market? It has chat and file sharing capabilities, but the real power of ICQ is in its option of sending private messages. AOL Instant Messenger has some semblance of private messaging and limited file sharing—but no viable chat. MS NetMeeting has great file sharing and good chat—but no private messaging. Unlike AIM, NetMeeting can launch external programs. Still, it’s the private messaging of ICQ that separates it from the rest of the pack.

ICQ allows all of the meeting participants to keep in touch after the meeting. Contact information is stored in ICQ’s databases; the NetDetect Agent keeps an “always on” status (and the ability to go into Privacy, Do not Disturb, and other modes, as shown in Figure C); and from the taskbar, you can keep track of people who come online. This setup allows for collaboration and conversation beyond the allotted time of the meeting. When people stay in touch with ICQ, they can continue working together, and they can start hosting their own chat sessions. They can learn how to add users, and ultimately, they’ll stop turning to you when they want to meet online.

Figure C
ICQ’s modes include many privacy settings.

Private messaging in ICQ will allow you to create an online community that will thrive outside of the boardroom and exist for future projects. Members will be able to pass files back and forth, update contact information, and leave telephone numbers (in case they need to communicate by voice)—whether they’re on the road or just out to lunch. See Figure D for other options.

Figure D
A large number of options makes ICQ a great solution.

How to get around the drawbacks
Nothing’s perfect, and before I explain how to add some visual flare to your boss’s meeting, I’ll address some of the drawbacks of using ICQ for this event. The most obvious drawback is the huge number of people who will be using this platform for their online messaging needs. When you have too many people using one online resource, it often leads to spamming that’s inappropriate for a business environment. But there are ways around this problem.

Change security preferences to prevent spam
One way to prevent your online meeting attendees from getting interrupted by unsolicited e-mail or by intruders is to change their security preferences. Do the following:

  1. Click on the ICQ button, choose Preferences and Security, and select Security and Privacy.

Check the top radio buttons to make sure that people must get authorization in order to add other users to their “buddy lists.”

Choose not to publish the IP address and not to let people “view my presence on the World Wide Web.”

These measures will block hackers who like to cause trouble. Then, select the Ignore List tab and select Accept messages only from users on my contact list. This action will block spam messages. Make the most important security change by going to the Phone “Follow Me” tab on the Add/Change User Details menu. In this area, make sure that the user’s phone number is shown only to other users on the contact list. While publishing phone numbers allows meeting attendees to get in touch with each other easily, it also allows outsiders to get direct numbers to upper management. Most managers prefer to have their secretaries and assistants screen their calls. But by choosing to publish their numbers to people on the contact list, the attendees can contact one another quickly.

Watch out for viruses
Make sure that the users are ready to perform virus scans on any files that are sent to them via ICQ. Files are sent by a protocol that’s very similar to the DCC protocol that’s used in IRC. Thus, there’s a direct gateway that’s opened from one computer to another for passing files at high speed. The downside to sharing files this way is obvious.

Incidentally, the Launch External Programs feature lets you launch both the file sharing and the white board functions of NetMeeting—just in case the attendees care to collaborate on a document. Again, virus protection is very important with this type of endeavor.

With security safeguards in place, however, ICQ should become as safe an environment as any firewall-protected network out there. That’s not to say that nobody could cause problems—just that you’ve taken the necessary precautions. Fortunately, ICQ is such a widely used program that there are many available servers that you can use; traffic never really affects users. You could get some additional software so that you can host your own ICQ server, but that would be something you would do only if you had more time for testing and tweaking.

Now add video
Now, we deal with the final step of making this meeting a smashing success: video. Online chats are great, but they lack some of the flare and attention-grabbing qualities of a video presentation. You’ll need to decide on how elaborate a presentation you can produce without hiring a specialist. Usually, you’ll be limited to using your video capture card and a camcorder or just a Webcam. Don’t be discouraged if you don’t have really expensive video equipment; your equipment won’t make or break your project—unless it simply doesn’t work. Basically, there are two types of cameras that you can use: Webcams and camcorders.

Plenty of low-band video conferencing software programs will launch from ICQ. You can find a list of them in the ICQ user guide or on the ICQ Web site. You’ll want to stick with something that most users already have or with something that’s easy to download and install. The more work the attendees have to do, the more time you’ll have to spend troubleshooting.

MS NetMeeting 3+ is a very good option for such an event. Not only does it ship with MS Office 2000; most computers that use Windows 9x come with some flavor of this program already installed. It makes compatibility issues negligible. You’ll probably have to take the wheel and help everyone find the video feed that you’re streaming, but that task shouldn’t be too hard.

CU-SeeMe is another option. There are numerous free or trial versions available. If you’re going to make this type of meeting a routine event, you might want to purchase this program. CU-SeeMe lacks some of the collaborative tools of NetMeeting, but it still provides a good way of letting users view whatever is being presented.

Camcorder and video capture card
This option gets more complicated. If you already have a NetShow or RealNetworks G2 Server installed and tested on your system, it should be an easy application for you to use. On short notice, however, the downloading process alone would make it difficult to use if you’re a first-time streamer.

Both G2 and NetShow have distinct advantages over Webcam applications. They provide much sharper images (given a good camcorder and a high-end video capture card). A friend of mine in the streaming media industry recommends the ATI All-in-Wonder. The audio features from NetShow are a step up from webcam speakers, which can be improved by using a headset. Another nice aspect of streaming video software is that you can send the location of the video to all of the users simultaneously via the Send URL option that comes up when you left-click on a user name. The URL automatically launches the video player (Windows Media Player or RealPlayer G2) and almost instantaneously cues up the video stream. Figure E, which shows Windows Media Player, demonstrates how one person will appear in a 28.8 KB window.

Figure E
Open Windows Media Player for streaming video.

NetShow and G2 can be used to stream MS PowerPoint presentations if a slideshow or animation is all that you want to show the attendees. ICQ alone allows you to send a timed PowerPoint presentation, which people can watch on their own time.

Video production tips
No matter what you use, make sure that you control both the audio and video background noise. Try to use these video features in a quiet room; don’t use them anywhere where there’s a busy background. Try to film against a solid colored background—preferably one that’s not green. Image clarity in streaming video is based upon how many pixels must refresh on every frame. If the only movement comes from the head and lips of the presenter, the image will be clear, and the frame rate (and lip synch) will be good.

The real concern of video, however, is bandwidth—not what you’re using to send the video. Keep in mind that one member may be trapped in a motel without a high-speed data connection. Another member may have her Sprint or Nextel phone plugged into her laptop in order to pull down 33.6 Kbps, which isn’t enough for video. If you must use a high-bandwidth stream (56 KB or higher), consider setting up another stream for bandwidth-impaired users. That way, you’ll allow people on LANs with T-1 lines or DSL to receive fantastic video, while traveling members will still be able to see something.

You also ought to consider having only one video stream. That way, everyone will see only the presenter/moderator of the meeting. While this method may not be exactly what the boss had in mind, the more streams that exist, the more bandwidth that will be necessary—and the more that you’ll have to set up. You can’t be in two places at once, so in all likelihood, one stream will have to do. Even with Webcams, having more than one video window can choke the bandwidth of low-bandwidth users.

Video adds pizzazz to your online meeting and allows your boss to use the media training that the company paid for. Just make sure that whatever you use for sending the video is available to most of the users, including any software that will become standard for the majority of computers. Be conscious of the constraints of the systems that you employ. Your most important attendee may be the one who’s on the road with an outdated notebook; be sure to cater to this person.

While ICQ and an external video stream may not be the best setup, they definitely have their advantages. Once, I made a presentation with ICQ and NetShow at a corporation that was looking for a way to connect its directors without forcing them to leave their offices. The biggest benefit was that the board members could stay in touch after the meeting ended. I set up a mobile streaming video unit that allowed me to cart the camera and server around town in case one of the other board members wanted to host the next meeting. This mobile unit allowed other companies to present seminars to the board and to anyone else whom they wanted to include in meetings. If you start using ICQ, I think that you, too, will appreciate its wide availability, its ease of use, and its versatility—both inside and outside of prescribed meeting times.

David A. Podgursky has been writing about the IT industry for several years.

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